Earlier this week, a Paris court set a June 22 date for the trial of ex-Dior designer John Galliano. He'll face six months in prison and a maximum fine of 22,500 euros for his now-notorious anti-Semitic and otherwise racist tirade at a posh café in Paris’s fashionable Marais district.
Coverage of Galliano's diatribe has focused on its ethnic dimension. This isn’t surprising. Galliano's ethnically charged vitriol shocks the conscience and serves as the basis of his impending criminal case. France outlaws hate speech that targets race or ethnicity, as well as sex, sexual orientation, religion, and physical disability.
Galliano has apologized for his rant on this account. He added that "I have fought my entire life against prejudice, intolerance and discrimination having been subjected to it myself." His apologists have emphasized this in his defense. One commentator further observed that "[n]obody is claiming that Galliano's drunken outburst reflects a seam of Nazi sympathy in his work: on the contrary, anything less likely to strike a chord with the Nazis than the richly cosmopolitan, gypsy-influenced anarchy of his designs is hard to imagine." Be that as it may, Galliano’s apparent racism isn't the only troubling aspect of what occurred, even if it’s the only aspect that concerns French law.
The threatening undercurrent to racism is what sociologists call “in-group/out-group bias.” In-group/out-group bias is just a more formal way of thinking about something we all understand intuitively. We like people with whom we identify better than people with whom we don’t. In group settings, we treat those people with whom we identify better, while treating others worse, even when we wouldn’t do so on an individual basis. The bias can be powerful, as the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated in 1971. The Stanford Prison Experiment so successfully and disturbingly transformed ordinary undergraduate students into prison guards who tortured their classmates as inmates that researchers abandoned the project before they had even half-finished.
This is why race, ethnicity, and other similar “immutable characteristics” receive protection against discrimination in western society. These sorts of characteristics can’t be changed—they’re immutable—so the in-group/out-group dynamic threatens to become intractable and spiral out of control. In history’s worst cases, the results have been brutally violent, as happened in Rwanda in 1994, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, and Europe during the Second World War. The results are still troubling even in less severe cases, as was the case in apartheid societies like South Africa, or the southern United States.